Communi-whaaaa?

April 17, 2016 § Leave a comment

Some things about growing up in a small town stay with you. The smell of dirt roads, the rush of tall grass, the aching openness of the sky. The well-worn walk from one best friend’s house to another. The yearly festivals packed with twangy, swinging folk music and greasy, home cooked food. The easy way people talk to you, knowing that you share the little details of daily experience.

San Francisco is different from most cities in that, as people say, it has a ‘small town feel’. It’s true – in contrast to the brusque streets of New York, San Francisco holds more spaciousness and warmth around social interactions than you might expect from a big city. As an exuberant diary entry from my first few weeks here raves, “Everyone lets you pet their dogs! Small children wave at you! Cool 20-somethings share their {food} in the park!” Bay Area folks are wonderfully social; I still get the warm fuzzies every time a Philz barista smiles genuinely at me, or each time I share a joke with the Muni bus driver. But after 3 years, I’ve learned the hard way that the difference between ‘small town feel’ and ‘small town for real’ is a huge one.

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To illustrate, let me share my experience as a member of what is affectionately known in our hippie-drenched metropolis as ‘the yoga community’. My initiation into this club began with a 6-month yoga teacher training, complimented by a stint working at a swanky studio, and topped by a characteristically adventurous foray into acroyoga. I made TONS of fast friends, especially through acro, probably because there’s nothing that gets you closer faster than falling off someone’s feet onto their chest or landing crotch-first on their face (it’s all about the spandex).

As a freshman city-dweller, being poured into this metaphorical friend soup felt wonderful at first. People in the yoga community are friendly, open-minded, and tend to jump to the platonic ‘I love you!’ stage very quickly. At the studio, my coworkers regularly added terms of endearment to everyday conversation. “Can you cover this shift for me, dear?” “Thanks, love.” “Oooh, cute pants, hon!” Don’t get me wrong, cuddle-talk does make the world feel a little more cozy. But I’ve found that the cozy feeling rarely blossoms into full-on friendships. People are busy, rent is high, and haggling to find time to hang outside of work often feels like a chore.

A similar thing has happened in other communities I’ve joined. In my first few months here, I joined several Meetups and various shared-interest Facebook groups based in the Bay Area (Shut Up and Write, SF Philosophy Group, 20-Somethings Friends and Fun, etc.). I also joined a mailing list called Johnny Funcheap, a sort of everyman’s calendar of free social events (parades, trivia nights, drag shows, you know the deal). Through these events, I’ve had a lot of fun exploring and occasionally have met some interesting folks. However, none of them have stuck. At most, my spurious connections tend to sputter out after 1 or 2 one-off meetings for coffee. I used to beat myself up for it – until I dug deeper into what it is about urban environments that causes such a lack of connectivity. Here’s what I’ve concluded:

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As much as we might like to think the nucleus of community is shared interest, it’s not. From an anthropological perspective, community starts with shared locality before anything else. But in a place as densely populated as SF, shared location ends up meaning less. Neighborhood associations do exist, but mostly to problem-solve issues and not just to hang. There’s no designated central convening place, and the general fear of reaching out too far blocks people from making connections with people they aren’t sure live in the neighborhood. When I have reached out – in the park or at the coffee shop on the corner – I’ve found to my chagrin that I often have little or nothing in common with even people my age who live nearby. Hence the tendency to lean toward groups where you already know you’ve got one thing in sync.

But while they do provide a nice refuge from the discomfort of the urban melting-pot, shared-interest groups are still limited. Even taking an activity and adding the word ‘community’ after it (hacker community, permaculture community, whatever) doesn’t make people gel… no matter how many meetings we schedule or parties we throw or events we attend. Because when it comes down to it, community is about what happens outside the main event.

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To me, community means seeing the same people every day. It means seeing them so much you get bored. When you have little else to do then you have to create things, or be awkward and then vulnerable, or talk through the weird aspects of life until you reach similar conclusions about what it’s all about. Unfortunately, with the constant slurry of events going on in a city like San Francisco, there’s no time to be bored. If you want to create boredom, or at least unscheduled common time, you have to choose each other. And that doesn’t always happen, perhaps simply because we are too afraid to take the risk.

The small town feel I’ve experienced in San Francisco does have something to do with kindness, the superficial behaviors of our everyday interactions. And in a city, there are a lot of tiny interactions, so the more of them feel kind and compassionate, the more its going to feel like a small town. But community – the thing that really makes a small town – has to do with love, and that can’t be made in a series of superficial interactions. Love needs hours of hang-out time. It needs space to include all our interests and non-interests. It needs come over and play video games even though I met you at an activist meeting and who knows if you even like them. Before that, any commitment we make can feel just a bit flimsy.

***

So when people say SF has that ‘small town feel’, I agree, with the caveat that it’s just what it is – a feeling. I have yet to experience anything here matching small town reality. I’ve met some great friends, but my time with them is irregular and disjointed; my friendships seem to revolve uncomfortably around me instead of around each other. I want to change that by fostering connections that run deeper than just ‘We’re hanging out today’, or ‘I like this, and you do too’. Though the question of how we build community in the city also begs a broader question: how do we save community in a world that’s becoming increasingly isolated, even as population density rises?

Maybe this lack of what I know as community is part and parcel of city life, of modern life. Or maybe it’s actually here, just in a different form, hiding shyly between connections and only waiting to be drawn out. Either way, I’d rather be proactive than wait to be surprised. If I build it, will they come?

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Something’s Cooking

January 8, 2015 § Leave a comment

I did it. I survived that hallmark of the American experience known as the 40 hour-a-week, standard 9 to 5, cut-and-dry desk job. I went through the motions, set my alarm for 7:30 a.m., put on my slacks, and got on public transport bleary-eyed and coffee-sick, trudged through the afternoon hours as awake as a sloth, shuttled home playing candy crush and passed out watching Netflix, day in and day out for a year.

So I don’t feel too bad affirming that it’s not for me. Of course, everybody’s got to make money. Some people struggle so much they need to work two full-time jobs or do backbreaking manual labor to make ends meet. I know I’ve got it pretty good. But there’s something about the soul-numbing-ness of sitting at a computer screen all day that challenges my vision of what success is supposed to look like.

With that realization in mind, and with the little savings I’d built up from my year-long stint in the world of business, this summer I took some time off.

At first, this decision was terrifying. For somebody as ‘Type A’ as me, ‘taking some time off’ feels more like ‘taking a jump off’ a 150-foot cliff. It’s like flicking off the little light switch in your brain that turns the sanity on. Or like taking a whole productivity casserole you’ve been prepping for the last god-knows-how-many years and chucking it out the window of a moving vehicle.

But for a woman who’s spent a good 90% of her life overworking herself only to find that degrees don’t guarantee contentment, it ultimately felt like the right move. I needed lightness and playfulness. I needed a handful of breezy afternoons spent doing nothing. I needed to know what getting 8 hours of sleep every night actually felt like. I needed to reconnect with the girl I was before ‘the system’ turned me into that excuse for an adult known as a robot. So I spent a month doing just that, exploring the city, and taking my time to think about what was best for me moving forward.

I don’t think I would have made this decision if I were living somewhere else. In the Bay Area, people aren’t afraid to live exactly the way they want to, even if it falls outside the mainstream. In the circles I’ve moved around in San Francisco, it’s an okay thing not to have a full time desk job. In fact, it’s pretty okay to make your living doing just about anything, whether it’s body work, plant work, selling things on the street corner, or whatever makes it happen for you. People I know often contract their skills, work from home, or have what would otherwise be considered ‘alternative’ jobs. Some don’t work at all and squat in collective warehouses to avoid paying rent and/or becoming a mere cog in the capitalist machine. While many of my east coast peers are feverishly placing down building blocks for their career, most of my friends here are finding creative ways to get by and do what they really want (art, music, activism, etc.). They aren’t driven by the need to ‘be somewhere’ or ‘be someone’ with their careers – instead, they’re driven by what feels right, and what makes them happy.

The most beautiful lesson I’ve learned so far from living here is that if my friends can do something a little different, I can too. Since September, I’ve been working two part time jobs: one as a front desk manager at a yoga studio, the other at an education non-profit where I mentor high school students. The combination hardly destines me for the front page of Princeton Alumni Weekly, but that’s what I love about it. I have the kind of freedom the most successful people (like those friends of friends who most recently made Forbes’ 30 under 30 list) pine for.

To be real, many of us ‘golden children’ have often felt like perpetual homecoming kings and queens. Our lives have been a ticker tape of celebrated successes: ‘Graduates high school cum laude!’ ‘Graduates college summa cum laude!’ ‘Lands ideal internship!’ ‘Lands prestigious job!’ It’s exhausting and dehumanizing. Since my time off and my career switch-up, I’ve got a new ticker tape: ‘Sits in garden for an hour!’ ‘Finishes first season of Smallville!’ I don’t care if anyone else watches my new show; to me it’s much more entertaining than the alternative.

As people from what I find myself calling ‘my old life’ ask me what’s next, I’m increasingly content with saying, “I don’t know.” I find comfort in the idea that “what’s next?” is a question you’d never ask of a Zen master. He’d probably just laugh at you. Because to think we know what’s next is a bit presumptuous, and I’m done with that mindset.

When I moved here last summer, I definitely made some huge changes. But where that was a fresh start, this feels like the real beginning. The productivity casserole is long spoiled and gone out to compost. I’m cooking up something a lot more interesting these days.

Urban Compassion: The Real Test

April 29, 2014 § Leave a comment

After weeks of heavy rains and freezing winds that’d give Chicago or New York a run for their money, spring has finally descended over San Francisco. It’s a welcome relief for someone like me who will rarely step outside in anything under 50 degrees (yes, I’m a wimp). While my initial sense of awe at the splendor of my surroundings has dissipated some, my gratitude for the welcoming beauty and kindness of the city has yet to fade. But the cold weather has also focused my attention on a more sobering aspect of urban life.

It’s something I see every day, whether strolling through the park or jogging down sunny tree-lined streets. No matter how fast I walk from the BART stop to my office, or what main streets I avoid, it’s painfully visible: people everywhere are living on the streets. Packing everything they own into shopping carts and sleeping on dirty blankets. Huddling on doorsteps, braced against the wind whipping through the streets in the wee hours of the morning. Hungry, tired beyond tired, and alone.

It sends a pang through my chest to see the exhaustion and pain in their faces. It makes me even sadder to think that each person I see on the streets has a story of how they got there: a story of how things were good once, then just okay, and then quickly devolved into something over which they had no control. But most of all it bewilders me that such obvious suffering can exist so openly in one of America’s finest (and wealthiest) cities. Why, I wonder, is this still an issue?

***

One of the things I love about the Bay Area is the popular interest in Eastern philosophy and religion. I fit the image pretty squarely myself, frequenting yoga classes and lectures on engaged Buddhism. I also attend a weekly meditation group at the San Francisco Zen Center called Young Urban Zen. YUZ meetings are hosted in a beautiful meditation hall, embellished by hardwood floors, plush pillows and bright, warm yellow lights. I go to support my practice, but also to foster connections with people who are a lot like me: socially conscious, politically aware, concerned about the world and hoping to change it. After our discussions I always leave inspired to be a better, more compassionate person. A bodhisattva of sorts.

But somewhere along the ten-block stretch between the Zen Center and Van Ness station, my sharp enthusiasm begins to blur. Poorly lit streets only half-mask the handful of people, moving slowly in the shadows, who are without homes and apparently not in the best of mental health. And it could just be the darkness, and it could just be the cold, but I get pretty darn scared. My skin tingles. My breath quickens. I stare straight ahead, pull my jacket closer around me and walk in huge semicircles to avoid them. ‘I don’t want to ignore you,’ I think. ‘But I have to be safe.’

***

The moment always strikes me as a revealing sketch of my character. I imagine viewing the scene from above, and wonder, am I fooling myself? Are the stereotypes I grew up with (that homeless people are either crazy, addicted, or otherwise dangerous) really true, or is it an excuse I use to avoid a practical test of my ideals? These first uncomfortable thoughts spiral me into a muddled philosophical argument with myself: even if I were to stop and give them something, would it solve anything? And if I do give money, how much is enough?

I’m not a utilitarian, or even necessarily a perfect altruist, but that doesn’t mean I don’t still have a lot to learn about selflessness. I’ve noticed, for one, that my ruminations are merely threads in a complex tapestry of rationalizations and fears I’ve been weaving since day one: ‘I don’t have any money, and I can’t exactly give him my credit card… next time’. ‘I have 5 bucks but I was saving it for an Odwalla smoothie… I just can’t do it today.’ Or on the other side: ‘I only gave her two dollars. Two dollars?!? I really could have given more… if only I wasn’t so stingy.’ The storm cloud collision of fear and guilt often forestalls me from making a move, even if compassion impels me to.

Of course, there are some safety measures I have to abide by as a young woman living on my own in a huge city. If I’m walking home at 1:30 a.m. I don’t stop for anybody. As much as I might like to think so, all my ‘warrior’ poses couldn’t save me in the midst of an alleyway confrontation with the wrong person. But there’s a huge difference between those ‘survival mode’ situations and the countless others where I brush past someone who needs help, thinking only about my iPhone or how I need to get somewhere or that the homeless shelter is five blocks down so what the heck is he sitting out here for. In those situations, I really don’t have an excuse. So I’m stuck wondering how to break my pattern of letting fear guide my actions, instead of generosity.

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Inner struggles aside, it’s pretty clear that we live in a brave new world. The trickle-down theory days are over; trust in the benevolence of the system has disintegrated to the point of laughability. 23% of kids in the country now live in poverty (the number is well above 30% for both Hispanics and Blacks). It’s unacceptable, but as a generation we feel pretty powerless to change it.

At the same time, the reign of the top-down moral code based on Judeo-Christian values is dwindling, replaced by a youth culture that largely considers itself ‘humanist’. Trust me, I’m a fan. But I’ve often wondered what humanism means, especially in the context of an urban environment where we are confronted every day by an overwhelming dose of humanness in all its forms. Even just being surrounded by so many bodies is sometimes enough to make my head spin… add in the effort it takes to check my presumptions, listen patiently to other points of view, speak in perpetually politically correct terms, and I’d just as soon collapse into my bed and watch Netflix for a week to recover. Or more likely, drop in on a restorative yoga class, when I can afford it.

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The heart of the matter is, I think, a question of how to drive right action in the midst of confusion. It’s the same issue San Francisco is grappling with on a massive scale: newspapers and magazines spill out articles daily on the effects of gentrification on the city, with glittering proposals from wealthy developers met by scathing indictments from dozens of community organizations. It’s a kind of war, and Valencia and Mission streets face each other like concrete trenches.

As much as I may want to remain neutral, the fact that I live smack in the middle of the conflict means I have a role to play, for better or for worse. And while I’m hesitant to consider myself one of ‘the gentry’, the reality is that my background and education grant me a lot more privilege than most people here have. I could pass it off as not my battle, just like I could pass by every person who asks me for money or food tomorrow. But that’s really a cop-out. I still love it here. I still want to call it home. So I’m starting to think about what taking on that title means.

That Side of Paradise

October 23, 2013 § Leave a comment

I’ve been in this miraculous city for three months, and it feels like heaven. To be sure, it’s not the kind of heaven traditionally depicted in church sermons or illustrated in children’s picture books. This is a different sort of paradise altogether. One pulsing with life, rich and messy and colorful and strange. One where rules and circumscriptions dissolve into reality and what was once deviant is celebrated with a zeal approaching reverence. There are no angels, unless they’re wearing spiraled blond wigs and five-inch bedazzled pumps; the golden gate is there, but, oddly enough, it’s orange.

Welcome to San Francisco, the city of life and love and all variations in between. There’s an unparalleled freedom to be anyone you want to be here – and the locals certainly take advantage of that fact. I’ve seen young tech graduates wearing sleek designer suits, middle-aged women sporting rainbow hemp overalls, and old men dressed in nothing but leather thongs. With all the different kinds of people around, there are so many possibilities for personal identity that it’s hard to keep straight (pun intended). Exploration is a given, and divergence is rejoiced upon, even accepted as the new norm.

I’m well aware that what appears as utopia to some may be just a concrete jungle to others. But when I say San Francisco is paradise to me, I mean it sincerely. There is nothing I can find fault with in this city. Even the fog rolling in every evening trails with it a hint of the spectacular, mystical, romantic. The empty streets at night are hauntingly lovely and purposeful in their loneliness. Old Victorian houses, towering sycamore trees, and elegant, streamlined skyscrapers all radiate the same curious blend of mystery and melancholy that continually draws me out into the city streets just to feel the glow.

For the first few weeks after my arrival, I wondered if my exalted reaction was due to a drastic change in scenery. Before I came to California, I spent four years in Princeton, New Jersey (a strange kind of purgatory, but that’s another topic); no doubt part of my ecstatic overwhelm was due to the thrill of finally forsaking conservative small town America for a taste of liberal, urban cosmopolitanism. Not to mention the sudden influx of sunshine, fresh air off the Pacific, and for the first time in years, real Mexican food.

But I’m convinced that there is something fundamentally unique about San Francisco that can’t be fully explained by its geography or cuisine. It has to do with the people. As diverse as they are, they all definitely possess a certain character, which for lack of a more precise term I will call “Sanfranciscish”. It lands somewhere between ‘friendly’ and ‘curious’, and incorporates a sense of genuine openness and care. San Franciscans, from what I’ve experienced, know the difference a smile in the coffee shop makes, or a lighthearted exchange in the elevator. They seem to recognize the invisible connections we all share, and offer the necessary kindnesses that make living in such close quarters possible.

Why does this come as such a surprise? What does it say about America this should strike me as unique among any other place I’ve visited?  It might take me a while to construct a theory around this, but for now I’m enjoying the positive effects of living in such a refreshing environment.

A few related hypotheses I’m willing to test over the coming months:

Nine times out of ten, if you initiate a conversation with someone on MUNI, you’ll become fast friends (at least for the duration of the ride, and sometimes after).

One can maintain excellent cardiac fitness just by walking from Upper Haight, through the Castro, and into Noe Valley three times a week.

There is no mood so dark and deep that a Sunday morning in Dolores Park can’t cure.

My goal for this blog is to play with these and other hypotheses, share my more interesting experiences in the city by the bay, and explore some of the deeper questions that arise during my time here. To sign up for email updates when I (eventually) write another post, follow me on the right. I’ll keep them few and far between, because I prefer to let these things percolate, and because frankly, most of the time I’ll be out exploring anyway.

To adventures in paradise,

E